Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Lesson


“The job of a teacher is to create opportunities for success.”

“A lesson with Mr. Rocco is like an opera performance. There’s an overture, a plot with acts, scenes, and the Finale Ultimo.”

“The first lesson must be a life altering experience that is remembered by the student for their entire lives.”

“When you leave your lesson today, take everything with you. Don’t leave a single crumb on your plate.”

“We are all teachers. Our most important student is the one we see in the mirror every day.”

“If you want to fully understand what I’m teaching you, teach it to someone else.”


My first lesson with Jake, in September of 1966 when I was just a seventeen year old high school student, was a day that I will remember forever. I recall every aspect of it from walking past his ordinary house because I thought he must live in a mansion, to the smoking jacket he wore when he greeted me at the door.

The lesson was not very instructive because he mostly just listened. However, I’ll never forget the incredible commitment he made to me at the end. He said, “I’m putting you in the Civic Orchestra and giving you a full scholarship to study with me.”

Then he said, “The reason is that you sound as though you have already been studying with me for three years.” WOW! At the time, I didn’t fully understand the significance of his words. Later, I understood they were the most important words he ever said to me.

Generally, a student’s first lesson with me is not the first lesson of their career. Most often, they come to me because they are still searching for the “holy brass grail.” One of my students, a fine German trumpet player, previously studied with sixty teachers throughout the world.

Since these students are still searching for the reasons for their failure, my highest priority must be their liberation from that endless process. From their first experience, they must know that they have been freed and have finally discovered a new level of understanding of how to be successful. Their experience cannot be subtle, it must dramatic. If it’s not, they will continue to search else ware and our time together will have been a meaningless event.

It is never enough for a student to experience only successful performance in their first lesson. They must leave my studio with a thorough understanding of why it occurred. Without that understanding, they will not be able to duplicate their successful experiences on their own. That will open the door for future searching. There will be no liberation, only a continuation down the path of failure. For those students who return for more lessons, everything we do is just a reinforcement of the first experience.



Most of my lessons begin with a conversation. I realize the student may be distracted by nervousness, so I bring them back to creating music by reminding them what is necessary for their success. When they are assured that their success is probable, there is no longer a reason for anxiety.

With new students, I’ll ask about their background and personal goals in music. I frequently ask, “Where are you five years from now.” Sometimes they don’t know and other times they tell me where they hope to be. In either case, I get a lot of information about their “state of mind”. I remind them that I didn’t ask where they hope to be, I ask where they are? There is a huge difference between the two states of mind.


“Carefully choose the words you think or say. They have a powerful influence on your state of mind and that of others.”


I always discuss the importance of developing a clear vision of short and long term goals, and the need to mentally focus on them on a daily basis (Creative Visualization). Too often, students only visualize the reality of where they currently are on their journey of development. As long as they continue to see themselves as students, they will remain at the student level.

I encourage advanced brass players, hanging around the “Fantasy Land” of a college campus, to venture out to “Reality Land” to start taking professional auditions.


“One danger of working on advanced music degrees is that while on campus, you will always be seen as a student by others and you will see yourself the same way.”

“Once my students have developed a clearly defined vision of their future goals, I develop my own vision of what I need to do to help them.”


Whether they are new or returning students, I always allow them to first play what they want. I know they wish to either demonstrate what they can do well or in some cases what is not going well. I never encourage the latter!


“Pretend you are alone in a practice room. What would you play to begin your practice session?”

With a new student, I can evaluate everything about their playing within the first thirty seconds.

1. From their choice of music, I quickly learn about their range and technical development.

2. Their tone production is very obvious as is their overall musical character.

Most of the people who come to me for a lesson are experiencing failure at some level and have been doing so for quite awhile. They might be having problems with tone production, range, accuracy, articulation, or combinations of factors.

Frequently, they complain about their embouchure, air, tongue, or throat. I always listen carefully to their words because I am looking for clues to their present state of mind. Even if what they say is not truthful, I read between the lines. I also carefully observe body language for clues to the player’s state of mind. They are transparent so can’t hide anything from me. Sometimes, they try to do so.


“I have personally experienced your worst moment of failure. I hope you never experience mine.”

“You must me an honest musician because you have a lie detector in your hands.”

“Your physical problems are only symptoms of a mental problem.”

“My words are meaningless unless you personally experience what I’m saying.”


“There are two instruments, one in your hands and one in your head. The one in your hands is a true mirror, reflecting the one in your head.”


"The only mirror in the room is the one made of brass that you are holding."


“There is nothing wrong with your chops. Your mind is messing them up.”

I recall the first words I heard from a professional trumpet player who walked into my studio for the first time. He said, “I have bad news. I just came from the doctor and he told me there’s nothing wrong with my chops.” I responded, “That’s the good news!”

He was hoping there was a medical reason for the paralysis he was experiencing. He soon learned that his problem was not in his chops but in his head.



The student must experience significant success very soon in the lesson. From my initial evaluation, I completely understand what is going on. If things are going well, I motivate them to perform at the next level. Usually, that involves a more resonant sound or easier tone production by encouraging them to take a larger breath.

If the student is struggling to play at all, I motivate them to experience success at some level. I may ask them to play less complex music that does not challenge them beyond their ability to function at the moment. Sometimes, the success first comes with mouthpiece playing.



As the lesson progresses, I challenge the player to transfer their successful experiences to more difficult music. Frequently, I’ll ask them to play something they think they have no chance of playing well. However, I always ask what their expectation level is; high, middle, low or, no chance.


“I never allow a student to play unless they expect to be successful because I never want to motivate failure.”

If a student tells me their expectation of success is at a middle or lower level, I ask them what they should do to raise their level to high. Most often, they say they want to buzz the mouthpiece. I allow them to buzz until they say they are ready to play the instrument. Most often, they will be able to execute the passage.

Sometimes, they require additional repetitions of buzzing. I encourage them by saying, “You are almost there.” It’s very important to patiently continue the process of singing and buzzing until success has been achieved. As a teacher or player, I have never failed to achieve success, applying the Sing, Buzz, Play (SBP) formula.




“The lesson must not conclude until the student has achieved their highest level of success.”

“It is very important for a teacher to communicate to the student that they expect them to be successful.”

“I promise that if you do what is necessary to achieve success, you will be greatly rewarded.”

“Tell me what you need to do in order to achieve success.”

Finally, I ask the student what is their most insecure passage on an upcoming audition or recital. If they have trouble coming up with a response, I suggest one for them. If they mention something that I think is beyond their capabilities at the moment, I'll ask them to select something else. However, that’s very rare. At this point in the lesson, they are usually ready to play anything but may not realize it.

For instance, I may ask an advanced horn player to perform Till or Siegfried. I always first inquire about their expectation level which most often is low. Then we raise their expectation level by raising their awareness of the music (SBP). It’s only when they and I have a high expectation of success, that they are allowed to play. Bongo! Most of the time, they nail the passage and the lesson ends with a hand shake. Occasionally, another repetition or two is required before the hand shake. Frequently, I’ll conclude by reminding them, “That’s why you came here today.”


In conclusion, I ask the student the following questions:

1. What was the most important thing(s) you learned today?

2. Did you achieve success?

3. Why did it happen?

4. When you failed, do you understand why?

What follows is time for clarification and reinforcement of the important questions.

Finally, I remind them to take all their new knowledge and experience with them when they leave. I also assure them that our time together was not a single event. They can communicate with me or return anytime.


“Follow the yellow brick road.”

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